Ogling Impunity

Editor’s Note: This story and its illustrations contain graphic and offensive language; all of it was actually posted, anonymously, in the past 30 days by local students using the app Ogle. We have chosen to run the language with only modest editing in the interest of showing and telling the story of how this app and other social media has impacted local schools, students and parents.

It’s a teenager’s worst nightmare: naked selfies sent to another teen in an act of foolish confidence end up online, where they are openly displayed for their classmates’ intrigue and ridicule. This happened to a few students at Monterey High School over the winter. Classmates say the betrayal of having pictures posted they thought would be kept private by the recipient kept some kids from school for a few days.

When they finally returned, their humiliation was palpable.

Posting nude photos of underage people is a crime (even if the one doing the posting is also underage), and while the Monterey Police Department has investigated the incidents, there are few leads that could result in an arrest.

“The pictures were definitely inappropriate,” says Monterey Police Lt. Jeff Jackson, “but we didn’t have a lot of leads. They were pictures of parts so we couldn’t identify if it was truly someone underage.”

Part of the difficulty in tracking down people who posted naked photos of allegedly underage teens is the fact they were posted with an anonymous app, aptly named Ogle. One only has to download the free app onto their smartphone to find a comprehensive list of local high schools and colleges. Anyone can view anything posted to those schools’ feeds, and also post and ridicule whoever they please with little fear of repercussion.

Anonymous means anonymous – there’s virtually no way to track who makes a post without a court order.

There have also been a plethora of other posts that racially and sexually demean students – examples include profligate use of the “n” word, slurs against Latinos, references to various students, male and female, as bitches, hos, sluts and fags. Feelings can get hurt and reputations can get tarnished.

Many high school students downloaded Ogle just to make sure no one was talking shit about them.

“I’ve seen my name on [Ogle] a few times,” says Ruben Mora, a 15-year-old sophomore at Monterey High. “There were even a few nudes on there with my name on it. People asked me about it, but I’ve never taken one of those pictures so I was positive it wasn’t me.”

Mora was able to shrug the posts off, but he knows others who took similar experiences far more personally. But he continues to check the app just to see if anyone is talking about him. Mora has also seen police officers at his school, there to investigate the source of other posts on Ogle.

The social media app was first released in fall 2015; since then, posts about Monterey County schools have included threats that have resulted in the arrest of one student; the request from the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office that another student be charged with making terrorist threats; and numerous other investigations by law enforcement and school administrators.

Teens use social media as their primary means of communication. Most of the time it’s perfectly normal, albeit mostly inane, banter. But new anonymous posting apps have created a toxic environment that allow high schoolers to make hateful and hurtful posts with impunity. Schools are being forced to respond, and so is law enforcement, as posts have included bomb threats and mass shooting threats.

“Students are saying salacious and highly racially charged statements about other students on Ogle,” says David Sullivan, principal of Palma High School, an all-boys Catholic school in Salinas. “I pray that someone isn’t so effective with these vile posts that someone hurts themselves.”

• • •

If you need any further proof that the internet can be an inhospitable place, consider Tay. Early this year Microsoft launched the a chatbot in the likeness of a teenage girl, to test their artificial intelligence software on Twitter. Tay would use the language of those she interacted with, ideally to make intelligent, entertaining posts. Tay’s learning how to chat from the Twitter posts of others taught us just how base online communication can be. Within 24 hours of her launch, Microsoft had to pull the plug, as Tay quickly turned from the guise of a normal teenage girl into a Hitler-loving misogynist.

With this in mind it should come as little surprise that when apps are developed to target high schools, where users can post anonymously, things can get out of hand quickly.

The anonymous posts on Ogle include text, photos and videos that range from the asinine to the offensive. Typical posts include a picture and/or text of a student’s name with the question, “thoughts on [blank] [blank].” Comments typically range from the objectifying to the demeaning.

Some post are trivial, like a post on the Seaside High feed that asks, “Best taco Tuesday places?” Another on the Carmel High feed asks “Guy with best hair?” Others are far more inflammatory like, “I buttrape n******,” or “Fuck york Tustin on top f******.”

Things really got out of hand in February, when a 16-year-old Pacific Grove High School football player allegedly made a bomb threat against Carmel High School on Ogle. The threat was likely an escalation to an on-going sports rivalry between the two schools. The Monterey County Sheriff’s Office has identified the student and requested the Monterey County District Attorney press charges of making terrorist threats against him.

There were also three separate threats on the same day, Feb. 29, at Monterey High. While police were on campus investigating two threatening posts made through Ogle, a third threat was posted claiming someone was going to make the school look like a sequel to the Columbine High School shootings.

But that post also included a picture of a student taken in the school’s library, making it rather easy to identify who took the picture and who was behind the threat. Monterey police found the student, looked at his phone, saw the picture and arrested him. The 16-year-old now faces juvenile court charges of making criminal threats. Monterey detectives are also investigating the source of the original posts that brought them to the school.

These events have taken the problem of anonymous postings out of the jurisdiction of school administrators and parents and brought it under that of law enforcement.

Startups in Silicon Valley are always trying to develop the next big thing. They’re looking to create apps that catch people’s attention and spawn new forms of communication that become indispensable.

Ogling Impunity

Ogle’s concept isn’t new. Other apps like Yik Yak, Ask FM and Whisper have also allowed teens and others to post anonymously. While Yik Yak was developed for students, the focus was on college and the programmers specifically blocked postings from GPS coordinates where high schools were located after a rash of complaints.

While Ogle’s release might have been ill-conceived, a spokesperson told the Weekly in a written statement that the company is addressing the problems.

“As a company who believes in positive social impact, we take the safety of our users seriously and do not condone any types of behavior that is illegal or violates our content policies in the Ogle app,” the Ogle spokesperson writes.

“As such, we have now instituted a content moderation team to increase our scope of review and identify and remove such content and take action against those who violate our community guidelines, such as nudity or extreme content,” the statement reads.

While anonymous posting might keep parents and administrators scratching their heads, other technology has been developed to keep them in the dark.

At Palma High, Sullivan is frustrated by studies he’s read that 70 percent of high schoolers will send or receive sexts – sexually provocative messages including nude pictures and salacious language. And to keep their privates private – or to hide any other files they might not want others, including parents and teacher, to see – teenagers can download something called a vault.

These are basically the digital equivalent of shaving cream bottle with a fake bottom that can be removed to reveal an empty cannister, where past generations would, for example, hide cash or weed. Some vaults look like a basic calculator app on a smartphone, and indeed they do function as a working calculator.

But all the user has to do is enter a specific code and a library of hidden files is revealed. If and when they decide to share those hidden files with a friend, those files can easily end up in public for all to see.

• • •

Keeping up with new technology can be difficult. Many times parents and teachers aren’t aware there’s a new app capturing the attention of teens until a problem arises.

“It’s too big for us to monitor,” says Pacific Grove High School Principal Matt Bell. “It’s a rabbit hole to a degree. If there’s a site that appears to be a problem then we’ll watch it.”

Jurisdictionally, it’s difficult to regulate how students use social media. Free speech doesn’t just apply to adults: Teens also have the right to express themselves in racist, bigoted and hurtful ways.

Police respond to threats of violence and naked pictures of minors as they have in Monterey and Pacific Grove in recent months. Administrators respond to violations of student codes of conduct on campus, as Bell has when he disciplined students after they posted pictures of themselves smoking weed on high school grounds.

Yet in most cases, harassment and bad behavior online is the responsibility of either the parents or guardian to monitor. Minors have free speech rights, but parents are still free to reprimand their kids when they get out of line. But apps like Ogle make it painfully difficult to determine who is saying what.

“Ogle was such a bane for a while,” Bell says. “Just awful stuff about other kids. Students were approaching me about mean things being said about them. To say they were feeling badly is an understatement.”

• • •

After the incidents at Monterey High School, Principal Marcie Plummer went to every class in the days that followed to inform students that they will be held responsible for what they post anonymously online. Students were told that even though there’s anonymity, there’s still a possibility of tracing posts, and that in extreme cases they can be tracked through their IP addresses – an electronic identification assigned to every computer, smartphone and tablet.

“We can’t control what they do on social media,” Plummer says, ”but we can educate them on the ramifications of their online actions.”

One anonymous poster lamented in early April, “RIP Ogle. Invaded by parents and staff.”

• • •

More than 50 parents gather in an auditorium at the Pacific Grove Performing Arts Center on April 5 to gain insight into teenagers’ activities on social media. Monterey Peninsula, Pacific Grove and Carmel Unified School Districts all chipped in to bring Joe Allen to town so the Glendale police detective and social media expert could share his expertise.

Ogling Impunity

Detective Joe Allen from the Glendale Police Department speaks to parents in Pacific Grove about the new apps used by teens and how best to monitor what they are saying.

Allen takes the floor and posts a slide on the projector showing pictures of his various looks as an undercover narcotics cop – from bleached blonde to dreadlocked.

After he introduces himself he begins his presentation with raucous music and obnoxious sirens – being from Los Angeles, he has a taste for the theatrical. He also might want the districts to feel the $2,800 they spent for two nights of presentations were worth it.

While the ears of the audience members might be ringing, he now has their full attention. He then puts a picture of his teenage son’s Instagram feed on display.

Allen says that in order to understand teenagers’ use of social media you have to understand their perspective and what’s important to them. And at a tender age what is often most important is validation, and there’s often no validation more tangible for teenagers than the number of followers on social media and the number of likes or comments on their posts.

“My son writes that his goal is to get 300 followers on his Instagram account,” Allen says. “This is truly important to him, but he doesn’t even know 300 people.”

He stresses the importance of monitoring children’s online presence: Follow them on social media, check what their posting and click on their links. When their posts slow down to a trickle, do more investigation. Allen says when his son’s Instagram feed become inactive, he found that he had created another account, likely to circumvent the eyes of his parents.

Allen’s son’s page seems benign, but the kid likely knows he can’t get away much when his father is a detective specializing in social media who puts his page on display when he travels from school to school giving his presentation.

But for many kids, what appears on their social media accounts isn’t so benign.

“Bullying gains you followers,” Allen tells the audience.

And, in turn, followers gain you validation.

• • •

While many students see the problem with some social media apps that lend themselves to hurtful comments, some being directly affected by them, they also see a disconnect. Adults don’t fully understand that teenagers are interacting with the world around them in fundamentally different ways, and not all of it is bad.

“This generation is the most interconnected generation ever,” says Rachel Biggio, an 18-year-old senior at Pacific Grove High and president of the student body. “And I think there is something beautiful in that.”

Twitter and Snapchat are Biggio’s preferred social media apps, and she never downloaded Ogle when problems were arising from it in her school. It’s the anonymity of Ogle that allowed things to deteriorate, she says, adding students aren’t so mean when they’re held accountable for their words by their peers.

Outside of issues of threats and bullying, Biggio concedes that the constant presence of a smartphone in her pocket can add to distraction.

“FOMO is definitely real,” she says, then clarifies FOMO stands for the fear of missing out. Missing out on what? Whatever’s trending online. “There’s the running joke of kids tweeting about not wanting to do their homework.”

While Biggio has had a smartphone since she was in eighth grade, gets most of her news from social media and checks her phone at least 50 times a day, she, and most of her peers are doing just fine. She’ll attend Georgetown University in Washington D.C. this fall.

“I do think there’s a generation gap with every new form of technology,” she says. “Social media really shapes our worldviews. There are a lot of positives that come from it – just look at the activist movements looking to create positive change from the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter.”

• • •

Law enforcement and administrators might tout their online tracking capabilities to students, but in reality, their resources are limited. Law enforcement investigations locally that have led to the identification of anonymous posters have likely relied on old fashioned triangulation (kid takes picture, other kids or teachers remember where that kid was standing) rather than tracking IP addresses.

To find the identity of someone who posts online, the app developer must be subpoenaed for the IP. From that number the wireless carrier or internet service provider can be determined, and another court order is needed to force service provider to give the name of the user associated with the IP address.

Tech companies are very reluctant to release user information to authorities, often citing First Amendment grounds to resist subpoenas. While there is no absolute anonymity online, short of credible threats and gross displays of child porn, teenagers can act with little fear their principal will get their IP address.

• • •

Teenagers are emotional, not rational, creatures. Impulsive and impressionable, bad behavior can reach a fever pitch – as it did February – only to return to normalcy once the delayed response of better judgement is thrust upon them. Yet, in an always evolving digital landscape, a teen’s normal can still confound adults.

“This is my 25th year in education and I’ve seen a lot,” Plummer, the Monterey High principal, says, “but new technology is creating challenges I haven’t had to deal with before.

“Keeping apps like Ogle out is a lost cause, but encouraging the responsible use is something we can do,” she says. “Once students realized the implications of their behavior on Ogle, the problems pretty much disappeared after a few days.”

Hopefully the kid who posted to the Monterey High wall on April 19 doesn’t manage to organize a student walkout to get more prom tickets on the market.

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